I read comments by writers all the time saying their characters take over and start driving the plot of the story. With my current work in progress, I’ve become quite the plotter, making detailed outlines for each section of the work before I start writing. So imagine my surprise when the pen in my hand started writing a scene that was definitely not in the outline! What’s more, it was an unplanned sex scene.
Once it was written, I had to admit that scene actually worked, but the whole thing got me thinking about the willful character. Maybe it’s a form of “automatic writing,” not in the supernatural sense, but the result of tapping into subconscious impulses while in a state of receptiveness induced by the act of writing. (Hey, that’s not bad, considering I made it up on the spot).
The best fictional characters are like real people, complete with flaws, quirks and contradictory impulses. Some writers develop their characters before they actually start writing the novel. Physical features, musical and food preferences, hobbies, education — a complete curriculum vitae. I’m not that kind of writer. I have a hazy vision of my primary characters, that becomes clearer as I write. There seems to be a department in my brain called Character Development, that trots out details about each major character when needed. Sometimes it throws me a surprise.
One of the best parts of the writing process is when this automatic thing kicks in and the words pour out effortlessly. Sometimes it feels as though I’m just copying stuff dictated to me by a disembodied brain. It’s probably my brain. Or some kind of collective unconscious, a well of ideas available to all who yield themselves to the writing urge. That’s where our characters come from, finding their way in response to tentative images in our writing brains.
Characters manifest their characteristics, prompting a kind of negotiation with the author. “Okay, that’s fine — you can do this, but not that. And definitely not the other thing.” But cut them some slack. Willful characters aren’t a problem, but a sign that the writer’s imagination is engaged beyond the scope of the outline, tapping into a realm of mystery. And that’s good.
Sitting down to write, giving yourself up to whatever you are creating, is like going down an unexplored trail. You just don’t know what you might meet around the corner, even if you have a map. Whether you outline your plot in detail before you start, or write by the seat of your pants, you must be prepared for the unexpected.
The first stage of creating a work of fiction — the first draft — isn’t the place to worry about rules, or getting every detail right. At this stage, the writer’s imagination needs to be cranking out stuff, producing raw material to be refined later. That’s why I still write my first drafts — or maybe they’re better called “proto-drafts” — in longhand. Actually, “longhand” seems too fancy a term for my cursive scribble on the borderline of legibility.
The thing is, at this stage you don’t want to read over what you’ve written and polish it. You want to forge ahead, beating out the rough shape of your story, bumps, holes and all. Don’t look back! For me, stark black words on the bright white screen are just too intimidating. I really doubt I would have written that sudden sex scene if I’d been using my laptop. But I scribbled it down, and when I typed it up a few days later, the critical, analytical part of my brain said, “Well, okaaay, I guess it works.”
As for my work in progress — the first draft is almost done! Another 5,000 words or so, and I can write Finis.
And then, of course, I go back to the beginning. The crazy, creative part of my brain will take a back seat, and the critical, analytical part will get to to do its thing.
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.